From the somber, low-key tone of last night's hearing before the Baltimore County Human Relations Commission, it was hard to believe it had anything to do with a topic as controversial as sexual preference.
But the issue in the 90-minute hearing at Randallstown Senior High School was whether gay men and lesbians should be protected along with blacks and other minorities from discrimination.
The commission chairman, Joseph Matricciani, said the meeting was a fact-finding session to help the group decide whether to recommend to the County Council any changes in codes outlawing discrimination.
About 30 speakers stepped to the microphone to say why they believe homosexuals should or shouldn't be protected.
There was no finger pointing, no banner waving, no shouting, no name calling. But for each gay activist who asked for the protection, someone else spoke out against it.
Many opponents said such a measure would be a step toward promoting a lifestyle that conflicts with traditional family values.
"How can one make homosexuals a protected class when their protected activity, sodomy, is a criminal offense and, in the state of Maryland, a felony?" asked Christopher J. Trionfo, a general contractor who is state director of the American Family Association. The group focuses on family-oriented issues, such as fighting child pornography, he said.
Keith Nachbar of Reisterstown said changing the county code to protect homosexuals would sanction their lifestyle, which conflicts with the "strong, traditional family values we should be promoting. Next year, will drug abusers be asking you for the same protection?"
Dominick Garcia, an attorney, said there was little evidence to suggest that homosexuals suffer any economic hardship because of discrimination. "The homosexual does not need special privileges," he said.
But Richard Oloizia of the Baltimore Justice Campaign said that a switchboard operated by the group and the Gay and Lesbian Community Center has received 48 complaints about harassment and discrimination against homosexuals since June 1989. Eight of those incidents occurred in Baltimore County, including problems where people were dismissed from jobs, denied apartments and abused by co-workers, he said.
T. Stephen Cody described how he was denied a sales job, after training for it, when the sales manager learned he was gay.
Allen Beall, a teacher, said he was thrown out of a bar after his partner stumbled and put his arms around Mr. Beall's neck for stability. "I was, and continue to be, hurt, humiliated, frustrated and confused," he said.
Mr. Matricciani said the 15-member commission will review the testimony and written comments and hold another public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at Perry Hall High School.
The commission, created in 1989, has the power to investigate discrimination complaints and to subpoena witnesses and documents for hearings.
It also can mandate remedial action, such as requiring that an employee who was fired because of discrimination be rehired or ordering that a discriminatory landlord rent to a prospective tenant.
County codes protect minorities, the aged, the disabled and other groups from discrimination in housing, education, finance, public accommodations and on the job.